That’s about 4,000 miles, sometimes only going around 40mph (not much though, just the really pretty parts). I am admittedly only part way through this train ride, am currently in Oregon. And so far I am loving it. But let’s step back and ask why do this trip by train at all? It’s slower and more expensive than flying, right? Why bother? Well this post will try and answer that and offer up reasons why I am enjoying this so much.
Let’s just break it down and assume I wanted to go from LA to Seattle only. After all, if I just needed transportation from LA to Chicago I would simply go there directly. But that is the first clue as to why this is different. The train allows a trip which simply can’t be made efficiently and economically any better way. It allows for interim stops. Seattle in my journey is just one of many stops.
You see, I am not just trying to get from one big city to the other at the end of that line, something an airplane does quite well. I am stopping, a lot; something airplanes and airports would be terrible at.
So far I have taken the 5 hour train (Amtrak #14, the Coast Starliner) from LA to San Luis Obispo and got off for a few days of touring the California central coast. Painfully beautiful train ride along the Pacific (book a left hand side seat at Union station, they assign seats on this particular train starting about an hour before, but if you don’t get a left one then just go to observation car, go there anyway, don’t worry about it).
And nearby is a wonderful coast to explore. SLO is a great college town with a good climate, nice restaurants and beautiful coastal areas and wine country nearby. I will give details another time.
Then I took the 3 hour train to Salinas with a garanteed bus connection to Monterey. (Bus is part of the Amtrak ticket, only a few extra dollars.) This bus is dedicated to Amtrak passengers only and waits for the train, very comfortable and no stress. Again stayed there for a couple of days. Aquarium is first class.
Then I could have taken the same train to San Jose but my nieces came down for the day and I went back up to Redwood City with them, for the weekend in the San Francisco area.
I next boarded number 14 once again, this time from San Jose and booked a sleeper car for the overnight trip to Portland.
I am now touring the Oregon coast for a week or so. And then after a stay in Portland itself, I will once again take a 3 hour train to Seattle, for a few nights there. There are multiple train options between Portland and Seattle. I will get that ticket when I decide to go. Eventually I will take a train across the Rockies to Chicago.
See a pattern? Other than the longer overnight leg, I am not on the train for more than a few hours at a time. And the longer leg has me sleeping in a bed. I only pay for the more expensive bedroom for that leg, that’s when I need it. And, signficantly, I don’t have to worry about parking a car anywhere other than where I actually want and need one. No overnight parking fees in big cities, etc.
Imagine how much it would cost to fly to all these places, which is actually possible. And driving would be 1700 miles of me not being able to look at the scenery - because I am driving. Sometimes driving in and out of major cities. When I do want to tour something by car, I rent one. If arranged at the right time of year, this isn’t very expensive. My 48 hour car rental in SLO cost $80 and Enterprise picked me up and took me back to the train station. My week long car rental in Portland only is costing $110. It can be a lot cheaper renting outside the airports where the rental companies pass though significant fees for their facilities or rights to just be there and have a concession. At some airports these fees can be equal to the rental costs themselves.
The train overall wins.
Let’s look at costs more carefully. My train rides from LA to Seattle all-told cost $350 . That includes a roomette sleeper car with a bed for the overnight leg and coach for other legs. The sleeper car comes with meals.
There is no practical limit on baggage throughout. And at worst I am seated in what would be considered first class seats on a plane; at best I have my own private room with double windows; and I always have the observation car.
On a plane I might pay somewhat less but still will need to get to and from the airport, pay for a few crappy meals and pay to sleep somewhere. No plane seat will be comfortable at these prices. Crowds, long barely-moving lines, taking off shoes, and service dogs, cats or hamsters are a risk. No part of the experience will be memorable other than for the pain and stress you may have to endure.
All in all the train ends up being cheaper than any airfare other than the most discounted fares, where you are limited to carry on bags only and you can’t even choose a seat ahead of time. In my book, the train is the far better deal.
But what really sells the train is simply that it is a better trip. The journey begins not when I arrive somewhere, grumpy and stressed, at an airport; rather it begins when I leave. The travel is part of the journey.
And I never have to deal with the horror of what has become our modern airport and airplane experience, an experience that seems designed to turn the happiest, most benign person into a werewolf.
In later posts I will offer up some strategies to cope with the one most often heard complaint about Amtrak: DELAYS. It’s part of the experience. As it is with air travel and even driving. I have had the 2 hour trip between LaGuardia and O’Hare turn into an 8 hour ordeal. I have had the drive between DC and NYC turn from 5 hours to 10. If properly planned, these delays on a train will be far less stressful and impactful on your trip.
But that’s a pro tip for another post.